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Engage, Isolate, or Strike


By Stanley Meisler, Illustrations by Sean McCabe

Published Apr 1, 2008 8:00 AM

To Talk Or Not To Talk

A closer look at the crisis over North Korea demonstrates the complexity of the issues.

Under an agreement with the Clinton administration signed in 1994, North Korea had promised to halt its nuclear weapons program in exchange for two American-built nuclear power plants and other benefits, among them diplomatic recognition. Although the agreement was falling apart by the time President George W. Bush took power, Colin Powell, his secretary of state, told reporters, "We do plan to engage with North Korea to pick up where President Clinton and his administration left off. Some promising elements were left on the table."

Powell was swiftly smacked down by the Bush administration. The hawks intended to isolate North Korea as a pariah, not engage with it. As Vice President Dick Cheney boasted later, "We don't negotiate with evil. We defeat it." Only when North Korea met certain conditions, including the return of weapons inspectors, would the United States talk to it. A chastened Powell corrected himself and told reporters, "Sometimes you get a little too far forward on your skis."


But isolation did not work. Defying the Bush administration, North Korea tested one nuclear bomb, and U.S. officials believe it has built one or two others. Faced with this defiance, the United States changed course. Talks between the two resumed, as part of a series of six-nation conferences with China, Japan, Russia and South Korea. An agreement was signed last year in which North Korea promised to dismantle its nuclear operations in exchange for a million tons of fuel oil and eventual diplomatic recognition. Though it has fallen behind schedule, North Korea has started to take down its nuclear facilities.

Iran has proven more difficult to handle. The Bush administration should not have been surprised by its nuclear ambition. In her recent book, Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies, Barbara Slavin, a senior diplomatic correspondent for USA Today, reports that the Bush White House invaded Iraq despite intelligence warnings that this would provoke Iran to accelerate its efforts to build nuclear weapons. Iran has tried to hide this program by claiming it is producing enriched uranium to fuel civilian nuclear power plants. Under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which Iran has signed, it has that right. But it is producing more than needed for civilian needs.

The United States has refused to discuss the issue with Iran, which Americans regard as the world's leading state sponsor of terrorist organizations such as Hamas and Hezbollah. But we have not tried to isolate Iran completely. While the U.S. has remained aloof, negotiations have been assumed by Britain, France and Germany on behalf of the European Union and by Mohamed ElBaradei, director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency. The U.S. role has been to apply pressure on the U.N. Security Council to impose sanctions.

Iran has been as stubborn as the United States. It wants the prestige of discussing the issue one-on-one with the U.S. In what was billed by the Americans as a major concession, Secretary of State Rice announced last May that the U.S. would talk with the Iranians, provided they first suspended their uranium enrichment program. It was not much of an offer. Slavin likens it to the U.S. "holding its nose while it stretched out a pinky toward Teheran." Iran would have to stop enriching uranium before the U.S. deigned to negotiate about stopping it. The condition was rejected by Iran.

The issue grew even more confused late last year when the U.S. intelligence agencies, in their latest National Intelligence Estimate, concluded "with high confidence that in Fall 2003, Teheran halted its nuclear weapons program." This prompted critics like Lee H. Hamilton, the influential former congressman who heads the Wilson Center, to urge the Bush administration to "be prepared to engage Iran diplomatically one-on-one, without preconditions."

But, while the new estimate toned down war talk in Washington and made tougher U.N. sanctions less likely, President Bush insisted that he would not budge.